“We haven’t been at the Crossroads for months, brother,” Baldair said delicately.
“No, we were ... We were ...” Aldrik sounded lost.
“There is no point in taxing yourself,” the Emperor soothed. “The events of the Crossroads and after are inconsequential.”
Vhalla wanted to scream in objection. The Crossroads had formed her and Aldrik’s shifting feelings, after which they had shared what had been the best night of her life.
“No,” Aldrik breathed. Vhalla heard his protest upon the evening breeze, echoing from his heart to hers. “No, the Crossroads, and then ... Then you took Vhalla from me.”
“Son.” The Emperor’s voice had completely changed.
“And we, the Pass ... I ...” There was a sudden commotion from within the room. “Where is she?” Aldrik demanded.
“Lie down. No, Aldrik, do not try to stand.” Baldair fell into the role of the cleric.
“Where is she? Is she all right? Baldair, you swore to me you would protect her!” Aldrik’s words sounded half mad with worry.
Vhalla pressed her eyes closed, her heart aching at being unable to reveal herself to him.
“Tell me!” Aldrik cried.
“Why must you do this?” The Emperor’s voice was so soft that Vhalla could barely hear it. “What is your unhealthy obsession with the girl?”
“She lives?” Even having just woken from a long sleep, Aldrik missed nothing. The Emperor’s anger would not exist had Vhalla died cleanly in the Pass.
“She lives,” the Emperor confirmed. The room settled. “For now.”
“What?” the crown prince uttered in shock.
Vhalla didn’t want him to ever find out the Emperor’s ultimatum, but she especially didn’t want him to find out like this. Her fingers twitched, wanting to reach for the shutter, to pull Aldrik from the room and from his father’s reach.
“She understands that she must focus on the task before her—and nothing else,” Emperor Solaris began. “She knows that should she give into distractions, it will have grave consequences for her.”
“Father, what are you talking about?” Baldair asked.
“We had a very productive conversation, the girl and I,” Emperor Solaris’s voice echoed ominously.
That was certainly one way to put it.
“And now I hope to have an equally productive one with you, Aldrik.”
Silence was the crown prince’s response.
“She has until spring to deliver me the North or she will be hung and quartered.” It wasn’t any easier to hear the second time. “But I fear she has become too much of a risk. So, even if she does succeed, I trust you will decide what to do with her when her usefulness has run its course.”
“What to do with her?” Baldair was the one who was brave enough to ask for clarification.
“She is a liability. She can listen in on conversations, walk through walls. There is no secret that could be kept from such a creature—”
“She’s a woman,” Aldrik corrected firmly.
“—creature,” the Emperor continued. “I should not think I would even need to mention the Crystal Caverns.” There was a long pause. “I did not think so. I am not so certain your tests were conclusive enough, Aldrik. Perhaps she can manage crystals. If so, she becomes an even greater risk to us all if someone decides to use her to unlock the power that sleeps there. War is full of casualties; no one expects her to leave this battlefield.”
Vhalla pressed her eyes closed tightly, feeling sick.
“She saved Aldrik’s life, Father.” Baldair’s defense was heartwarming, however useless.
“It was her duty! That is the role of subject and lord. A role I feel is being blurred.” The Emperor let his implications hang in the air. “Well then, I look forward to your plans on the matter.”
“I will not,” Aldrik said softly as the door opened.
Vhalla’s heart stopped.
“Excuse me?” the Emperor asked coldly.
“She has done too much. We need her. I need—”
“In what ways do you need her?” Emperor Solaris finished for his son, cruelly skewering the words that Aldrik was letting get away from him.
“You know in what way!” Aldrik lost his control. The silver-tongued Fire Lord, the fearsome prince had been stripped away to a desperate man.
Vhalla pressed her eyes closed. How had the world tilted so far off-balance?
“Yes,” the Emperor said slowly. “I am afraid I do.” Vhalla could imagine the Emperor crossing the room to stare down his son as he had her when she heard his footsteps. “She clearly can’t be tamed, so she dies, Aldrik. And I have every suspicion that it will be a far gentler death if it is done by your hand than mine.”
WHAT WILL YOU do?” Baldair asked, finally breaking the silence and spurring Vhalla to action.
“Baldair, go,” Aldrik demanded sourly. “Brother, we can—”
“I said leave me!” the crown prince seethed in pain.
Both royals turned quickly as the shutter opened. Vhalla quickly hopped over the window ledge before anyone below would notice her silhouette against the candle-lit room. She eased the shutter closed as softly as possible, straightening.